Alejandro Iñárritu’s stage-door film, Birdman (2014) tells the story of a faded Hollywood star (Michael Keaton) attempting to make a comeback and establish a legacy in an Broadway play. It is a comedy – a dark one – and filled will characters who are mostly unlikable, but suited for the life in the theater. Keaton’s Riggan Thomson used to play the eponymous action hero, but walked away from “Birdman IV” 20 years ago. He is still in the public mind, but obviously hasn’t done much since. He is the writer, director, and star of a play based on the short stories of Raymond Carver, an author, whose early death from alcoholism imitates that of our star, who was famous, but never realized his full potential.
The film is set backstage at the St. James theater and and the one-block area around Times Square. It is cramped, and full of characters who have difficulty separating their personal roles and professional stage lives. Riggan is a man juggling too many responsibilities and each and every one of them is causing him stress and humiliation. We enter the story a few weeks before opening night. One of the main actors has become injured. The play is running low on cash. Riggan’s daughter (Emma Stone) is out of rehab but doing drugs again. As they near opening night, they fumble and fight and are unable to put together a full run through without the play falling apart. Current girlfriends and ex-wives come in and out of the story to remind Riggan that he has failed in those roles as well. Riggan retires often to his dressing room to be alone where he is haunted by the voice of his Birdman character who chastises him: even the voices in his head don’t respect him that much.
The cast is excellent. I love Ed Norton as a method actor who can only respond onstage if the props look real to him, but who can’t respond properly to the world around him. He poses challenge to the director – a celebrated Broadway star with stage experience who can save the show – but who openly disdains Riggan’s writing, directing and Hollywood acting experience. I also liked Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), as “the only critic who matters” who promises to destroy the play with the most vicious review ever penned (how she does that would be a spoiler). I also liked Zach Galifianakis as the play’s over-taxed producer and Riggan’s best friend.
The film itself was executed well, and the story is a good one, if a little sour. Since the subject of the film is the theater and the final act of someone’s life, I have to give the film credit for being humorous from time to time without losing site of the fact that Riggan is falling apart. The film doesn’t allow us to take pleasure witnessing what is happening to Riggan, even a guilty one. The film’s technical feat is the use of long single camera shots, strung together so that it appears that long scenes even in different parts of the theater were shot continuously in a single take. That technique gives the effect of watching a stage performance rather than a film, even if the camera is moving on cranes and dollies. Unfortunately, that much sweeping movement can be distracting from time to time. Following characters as they walk up and down stairs, through winding hallways, into cramped rooms wears thin after awhile. The filming technique also means that some of the longer monologues rely on one continuous close-up shot. At times, I wish the camera would back off a little bit so that I wouldn’t have to look at these characters talking to themselves so closely.
**** of 5.